One of the attractions of an academic career is the autonomy it affords. You have the freedom to research the things you find interesting. You don’t have to report weekly or monthly to your boss about your progress on your writing and research. You have considerable control over how you teach the courses you teach, both in terms of content and classroom style.
That means no one is going to give you permission.
- To do the kind of research or writing you want to do
- To cut back on the amount of time you spend preparing
- To say “no” to that particular committee assignment
- To take the weekend off
Or, perhaps more accurately, they already have.
You have permission to make your own decisions
The downside to autonomy is that all decisions have consequences. If someone else tells you that you have to do something, then that person is responsible for the consequences. They can’t turn around and deny you a promotion for doing the things they told you to do.
If you make those decisions yourself… Well, that’s scary. What if you’ve made the wrong decisions? Can you trust your own judgement? What are the likely consequences?
These fears are particularly acute early in your career. Pre-tenure (in North America) or during your probation (in the UK & elsewhere). And they are worse in situations where the processes for making decisions about your continuation or promotion are unclear.
That said, I have met tenured academics who still struggle with these decisions. Even knowing that the likely consequences are limited and do not include losing their job, they find it difficult to make decisions about the type and amount of work they are doing.
Trusting your judgement is hard
You risk criticism. Disapproval. Perhaps even attack.
Many of us try to avoid those things even when the people who might disapprove of our actions have no real power over us. How common is it to fret about the 2 negative comments in the stack of student evaluations of our courses, even when the vast majority of the comments are positive? (Stop that, by the way.)
Even though criticism is an inevitable part of academic life, many academics struggle with it.
You are not alone if you put off submitting papers for publication until you have addressed all possible criticisms. Or, if you take months to revise and resubmit those papers. Or, if you avoid applying for grants for fear of rejection.
You are not alone if you take on more service and administrative obligations than you need to because you find it hard to say “no”. Even though you aren’t clear what you can contribute to this particular committee, you don’t want to let anyone down. Or, you know you can’t make your best contribution if you are doing too much, but this particular task is really important and if you don’t do it …
You are not alone if you spend a lot of time and energy on teaching preparation, or even just worrying about teaching. Or when your ideals and your classroom experience don’t match up.
You have permission
And you don’t need to fix everything at once.
Pick one thing you feel like you’ve been waiting for permission to try. Tell yourself you have permission. Use a gremlin colouring page to write down all the things the voices in your head are saying about what will happen if you do it. Put it aside. Make a list of all the reasons you really want to do the thing you want to do.
Then try just giving yourself permission. It can be an experiment. You can try it for a limited amount of time and reevaluate later.
This post was edited Nov 2, 2015.